Remembering Cathy Smith, the Woman Behind Classic Rock Hits and a Famous Comedian’s Death

Cathy Smith might not be the most recognizable name in American pop culture, but she was behind some of the most significant cultural moments of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, including two iconic classic rock hits and the tragic death of a notable comedian. Indeed, the Canadian-born backup singer, drug dealer, and musical muse helped shape cultural history as we know it today.

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Smith first became associated with the music scene in the early 1960s when she befriended Levon Helm, who would later go on to form The Band. Her connection with the group’s members ranged from platonic to romantic to sexual. At one point, Smith became pregnant, but because of her relations with multiple members of the band, no one knew who the real father was. The group referred to the infant simply as “The Band Baby.”

This incident—and many others just before and after it—inspired some of the most instantly recognizable songs in classic rock history.

Cathy Smith’s Connection To The Band’s “The Weight”

The Band’s iconic hit “The Weight” follows the narrator as various characters either thwart his efforts or throw more burdens on him as the song progresses. According to a website archiving The Band’s history, the band’s association with Cathy Smith was the main inspiration behind the track. “It was the song that [Helm] used to tease Cathy Evelyn Smith with,” the website reads. “She mentioned that in her book Chasing the Dragon. She said she would turn red and run away cause every time he sang it, he would look over at her and grin.”

The song’s recurring theme of carrying the burden of others seems to be a metaphorical reference to “The Band Baby,” which either belonged to Levon Helms or Richard Danko, both of whom had sexual relations with Smith around the same time.

Fellow bandmate Richard Manuel offered to marry Smith and care for the child, but Smith turned him down. “Richard (who it appears was not responsible) stood up and offered to take the ‘load’ or consequences. It does ring bells with the themes Robbie [Robertson] has stated that “The Weight” is about: sharing a load, guilt, and ‘the impossibility’ of redemption.”

The Band Groupie Was Also The Inspiration Behind Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown”

Years after Cathy Smith inspired The Band to write “The Weight,” she inspired Gordon Lightfoot’s 1974 hit “Sundown.” Smith began working for Lightfoot in the early 1970s and eventually started having an affair with the musician, who had a wife at the time. Even without the element of an extramarital affair, Smith and Lightfoot’s relationship was tempestuous. Smith’s independent promiscuity enraged Lightfoot’s jealous personality, something Lightfoot references in “Sundown.”

“All it is is a thought about a situation where someone is wondering what his loved one is doing at the moment. He doesn’t quite know where she is. He’s not ready to give up on her, either,” Lightfoot later said about the track (via Far Out Magazine). “I was hoping that no one else would get their hands on [Smith] because she was pretty good-looking. That’s how I wrote the song “Sundown.” And as a matter of fact, it was written just about sundown, just as the sun was setting, behind the firm I had rented to use as a place to write the album.”

Cathy Smith Was The Woman Behind John Belushi’s Tragic Death

Cathy Smith’s mark on pop culture history didn’t end with music. She’s also the woman behind famous comedian John Belushi’s 1982 drug overdose and death. Law enforcement deemed Belushi’s death accidental until Smith sold the real story to the National Enquirer for $15,000, in which she admitted to injecting Belushi with a fatal mixture of cocaine and heroin while partying in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in West Hollywood. 

“I didn’t mean to. But I was responsible for his death,” Smith admitted in the June 1982 issue. “I didn’t feel responsible for John’s death at the time because I didn’t feel anything. I was loaded — really high on heroin. But now, I know it was my fault.” The salacious interview resulted in the LAPD reopening the investigation into Belushi’s death and charging Smith with one count of second-degree murder and 13 counts of administering a dangerous drug.

She served 15 months in prison at the California Institute for Women from December 1986 to March 1988. Smith died on August 16, 2020, in British Columbia after her health steadily declined for years.

Photo by WHP Radio/YouTube

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